Tag Archives: Perfection

Matthew 5: 33-47 A Community of Truthful Speech, Non-Violence and Love

Fra Angelico, Fresco in the Cloister of Mark in Florenz (1437-1445)

Matthew 5: 33-47

Parallel Luke 6: 27-36

Highlighted words will have comment on translation below

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is the final three of the six examples that Jesus provides his new followers of how to interpret scripture, live according to a law that has been fulfilled, He points to the type of community the kingdom of heaven embodies. Previously unreconciled anger, uncontrolled sexuality and broken relationships were revealed as things that undermined the type of community the Sermon on the Mount evokes, now untrue speech, violence and limited love are also revealed to be contrary to the nature of a community of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus doesn’t quote a specific commandment or verse, but the discussion of vows or oaths occurs several places in the law and the making of vows or swearing of oaths occurs frequently in the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures. The closest linguistic link is to Leviticus 19: 12, “You shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.” In this passage in Leviticus the breaking of an oath sworn in God’s name is a violation of the commandment making wrongful use (profaning) the name of the LORD, the God of Israel. But throughout the law making oaths, even in the name of the LORD, are assumed and Deuteronomy 23: 21-23  for people in general and Numbers 30: 1-15, referring to which vows made by women are binding, give additional justification within Israel for the practice of making and keeping vows. Yet, Jesus moves away from this tradition of truthful speech as bound by an oath to a society where all speech is to be truthful.

I think many people would long for a world where truthful speech was the norm and one of the struggles of our digitally pluralistic society is that truthful speech may be indistinguishable from partial truths, obfuscations and maliciously told lies. As I think about the issues facing society: immigration, global warming, poverty, discrimination, and many others it is amazing the number of both conspiracy theories and misinformation that are given equal space to information that is well thought out and accepted by those working in the various fields. Perhaps reflecting on the untruth operating on his own society in the mid-1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could comment in Discipleship:

There is no truth towards Jesus without truth toward other people. Lying destroys community. But truth rends false community and founds genuine fellowship. There is no following Jesus without living in the truth unveiled before God and other people. (DBWE 4: 131)

Yet, even churches and communities of faith can easily become places that do not value truth, but rather seek either easy accommodation or avoiding controversial topics of conversation. Even organizations that expressly claim to value truth in their mission or value statements may, by their actions demonstrate a preference for a convenient lie.

When we look at why people knowingly do not speak honestly there may be several reasons including fear of consequences and the desire to belong. In the type of community Matthew’s gospel attempts to point to truthful speech would not have consequences within the community and acceptance by the community would be assured. Even within the New Testament we see the early church struggle with conflict, belonging, and consequences both within and outside the community when people attempted to speak truthfully. The current expression of the body of Christ continues to struggle with being a place where truth can be honored and spoken, with or without vows. There has also been a reduction of truth in light of Postmodernity’s critique of Modernity’s search for an overarching truth that was universal for all people. The fracturing of truth to individual experience has both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side perspectives that were previously ignored or unvalued are being heard, but the reduction of truth to an individual’s experience of truth has made it easy to disregard other’s experience of truth that do not reinforce one’s own chosen truths. In a society of fractured truths, perhaps a community where truthful speech was welcomed and expected could be a place where the various perspectives, experiences and narratives could be brought together and both the community and their understanding of God, the world and one another could be enriched. Although I am a realist who can acknowledge the brokenness of truth in the church and in society; I am enough of an optimist to dream of a community where truthful speech can be heard and the ones who speak it honored.

The fifth commandment that Jesus references is commonly called the lex talionis (literally law of talons) which people believe mistakenly points to the brutality of the Hebrew Scriptures conception of law. Yet, Exodus 21: 12-27 which expands upon the commandment not to commit murder is about setting a limit to the violence that can answer violence. In contrast to witness of Lamech in Genesis 4: 23-24 where he boasts:

Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

In contrast to this expanding violence modeled by Lamech and by those who believe that revenge excuses the unlimited violence available to the vengeful one, lex talionis limits the violent response to be equivalent to the wound suffered:

If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.  (Exodus 21: 23-25)

But here violence is met with non-violence: cheeks are turned, coats and cloaks are handed over and the response to being forced to carry something one mile is to go the second. Responding to acts of violence non-violently are incredibly challenging to those, like myself, who were raised believing the paradox that violence may be wrong but also redemptive. A community of faith that practiced non-violence would be visible in contrast to the surrounding community that enforced its will through power or domination.

In the temptation narrative, (Matthew 4: 1-11) Jesus is offered domination over all the kingdoms of the world, which he rejects rather than worshipping the devil. Now the kingdom of heaven’s approach to the world is not like the bloody peace that Rome secured for its borders but instead a non-violent, enemy loving peace that is embodied in Christ’s life. During his arrest Jesus tells his disciples to put their swords away and when he is struck he does not respond in kind, the command to give coat and cloak is realized as the soldiers divide Jesus’ clothes among themselves, and in the person of Simon of Cyrene we see one compelled to carry a burden that is not their own by those in power. The cross itself becomes an alternative to the sword, the humiliation by the chief-priests, the scribes, Pilate and the soldiers is accepted rather than summoning twelve legions of angels. The far easier way, the way of the temptation narrative, is for one who is the Son of God to let the angels be commanded concerning his well-being and to bring the kingdoms into domination, but instead the way of Christ leads us to God’s offer of peace at the cross.

A community of peace, who embodies non-violent responses to the violence of the world is something that I both long for and struggle with. Prior to beginning seminary, I was a captain in the U.S. Army and growing up I saw myself as a career officer following in the footsteps of many in my immediate family who made their career in the military. I am aware of the way the stories I read, hear and watch are often stories of good in conflict with evil, but the struggle is done in terms of physical or military might rather than overcoming evil with love. I can admire the theological work of people like Walter Wink and John Howard Yoder who can talk about, and in Wink’s case be engaged in non-violent work. If the kingdom of heaven can reach Centurions in the gospels and warriors of any age, it will need to be a place where the practices of violence can be unlearned. I sometimes worry that people think of non-violence as a way to achieve one’s goals by other means, and while I do believe that there is a creative and disruptive response in each of these practices, which I will address below, I think one needs to acknowledge the risk involved in responding to violence with non-violence. This is a part of bearing one’s cross to follow Jesus.

Turning the other cheek does force the one who responded in violence to move from a slap to a more violent hit with the back of the hand. Giving one’s coat and one’s cloak leaves the person standing naked in the courtroom or public place which brings shame on both the naked one and the one who has sued for the coat. Going the second mile goes beyond what a soldier was supposed to ask a person to do. Non-violence can be effective but using non-violence may be met with increased violence. Practicing non-violence can be done individually but it can only change the world when it is practiced by the community. Jesus may be able to die on the cross and change the world, but we can only be the body of Christ in community. There are also times where political non-violence is advocated by people who interact with people individually in a way that does not value who they are in the community. John Howard Yoder, who book The Politics of Jesus highlighted Jesus’ call for non-violence, was also accused by many women of abuse, harassment and assault.[1] Ultimately non-violence without truthful speech, healthy relationships, restraint of lust and reconciliation of anger doesn’t embody the kingdom of heaven that Jesus calls for.

Paired with these practices of non-violence is a type of giving that conflicts with our own limits and self-preservation. Giving to everyone who begs and not refusing those asking to borrow seems maybe more unbelievable than the practice of non-violence to many Christians. I do think Jesus is pointing to a way of life where one places one’s treasure where one wants their heart to be (Matthew 6:21) and as we have seen earlier in the Sermon on the Mount the focus is on a community where the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek and those hungering and thirsting for righteousness can be truly blessed. I do think trying to live the ideals of the Sermon call for wisdom and patience and an ability to hold in tension the vision of the kingdom and the experience of the church one encounters.

The final reinterpretation which expands the command to love neighbors to include loving enemies expands the boundaries of these practices beyond the community of faith and beyond the network of people in the community or nation. The command to love one’s neighbor is vulnerable to the tribalism of nation, ethnicity, class, religious community and any other boundary that humans naturally establish. In the gospel of Luke the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) is another reexamination of this commandment to love the neighbor in narrative form. Throughout the scriptures the people of God are encountered by enemies and there are times where they are commanded to eliminate them (for example Deuteronomy 7: 1-5) and often the petitioner may ask God to judge or condemn their enemies but here the enemy is to be treated as the neighbor. In a kingdom of reconciliation there is a place for my enemy at the banquet of the Lord. Just as I was to be reconciled with a brother or sister prior to bringing my offering to the altar, so now I am to be reconciled with my enemy and to treat them as my brother and sister. In this community that is to be a light set on a lampstand or a city on the hill the practices are not the same as the practices of the nations. A community that is to be the salt that preserves the world does not only preserve the portions of the world where my neighbor lives, but the entire world. Like their God who provides for the righteous and unrighteous and causes the sun to rise on the good and evil.

The final line of the chapter has encouraged people reading it in English translations to hear the Sermon on the Mount within the parameters of being perfect, however the word translated perfect is better translated whole or complete. I’ve written about perfection and blamelessness in the Bible elsewhere and framing the Sermon on the Mount in terms of moralistic perfection has caused many to view it as an unattainable ethic for either the individual or the community. Telios which is the word behind perfect is a word for a goal (it for example is the prefix in the English telescope). I think it is enlightening that Luke’s parallel of this is “Be merciful, just as your heavenly Father is merciful” which takes the emphasis in a different direction. This final line in Matthew 5 brings together ideas from Leviticus 19:2 and Deuteronomy 18:13:

Speak to the congregation of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God and holy. (Leviticus 19:2)

You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 18:13)[2]

Matthew does imagine a community that reflects the Lord they follow. Like Israel before them, now the community of disciples is to be that which preserves and illuminates the earth. They are to be a community that stands out among the nations like a city on a hill. The vision, apart from the one who calls us into it and the promise of the advent of the kingdom of heaven, may seem foolish when compared with the wisdom the nations practice. A community that attempts to live into this vision may be persecuted for righteousness sake because they will be visible by their practices. For Matthew the law remains a gift for the community of the faithful and the community of disciples will now be expected to practice a mercy and righteousness that exceeds that of the communities of the Pharisees or Sadducees. This type of community may seem like an impossible dream or an unreachable goal, but I do think as a goal to move toward and to orient the community of disciples in the practices and life it can be a gift to the community that listens to it and allows it to reshape them. A community where reconciliation is practiced and anger does not dominate, where women and men and relationships are valued, where words are truthful, where violence does not dominate, physical needs are met, and enemies can become neighbors and even brothers and sisters. May we seek this wholeness that God embodies for us.

[1] In October 2014 the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Board (where Yoder taught) issued the following statement: “As an AMBS Board, we lament the terrible abuse many women suffered from John Howard Yoder. We also lament that there has not been transparency about how the seminary’s leadership responded at that time or any institutional public acknowledgement of regret for what went so horribly wrong. We commit to an ongoing, transparent process of institutional accountability which the president along with the board chair initiated, including work with the historian who will provide a scholarly analysis of what transpired. We will respond more fully once the historical account is published. We also support the planning of an AMBS-based service of lament, acknowledgement and hope in March 2015”

[2] I have highlighted completely loyal because the NRSV here translates the Hebrew tamim (often rendered holy in the NRSV) in a way that blurs the connection between Deuteronomy and Matthew.

 

Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

Mosaic on the Mount of Beatitudes in Israel (Images are St. Ambrose,, Moses and the Stoning of Stephen) Shared under Creative Commons 2.5

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is probably the best know piece that is unique to Matthew’s gospel (as it is assembled, although much of the material in the Sermon is found throughout Luke’s gospel) and there are scholars who have spent their entire careers focused on this small section of Matthew’s gospel. You don’t have to be a scholar to read the Sermon on the Mount and see that it calls the hearer to a different set of values than one will see practiced in the world around them. As a hearer you have the choice of how to respond to this expansion on the law given to Moses, the practices of prayer, fasting, how one values one’s treasurers and what one does with them, judging and more in this initial teaching section of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew constructed the gospel to quickly bring us to this first block of teaching and instruction and Matthew spends a lot of space in the gospel listening to the teaching of Jesus and letting it shape the community that hears it.

The words of the Sermon on the Mount have often been viewed as: an unattainable ethic which serves only to drive us to the grace of Christ, an interim ethic to bring about a radical reorientation in the context of Jesus’ presence and the quickly approaching judgment (which didn’t occur as expected in most reconstructions following this view) or a perfectionist ethic that Christ does expect Christians to follow. Each of these approaches in their own way minimize the imperative to attempt to live into the vision the sermon presents.  Prior to Luther the way of life embodied in the Sermon on the Mount was mainly limited to those who had separated themselves in monastic communities but one of the impacts of the Reformation was the ideal of bringing the reading, interpretation and the living of scripture as actions of the entire church was the perceived impossibility of all the baptized keeping this ethic. The solution for Luther, as one example, was perfect doctrine rather than perfect practice:

We cannot be or become perfect in the sense that we do not have any sin, the way they dream about perfection. Here and everywhere in Scripture “to be perfect,” means in the first place, that doctrine be completely correct and perfect, and then, that life move and be regulated according to it. (LW 21:129)

In fairness to Martin Luther, he did believe that correct doctrine would lead to a reformed way of living, that faith would lead a Christian to be a perfectly dutiful servant of all. Yet the perfectionistic way in which we frame the Sermon on the Mount I believe prevents us from honestly wrestling with the way of life that Matthew is presenting to those who would be disciples of Jesus.

Although I will deal with the translation of Matthew 5:48 when I reach that section, I do believe it is important enough to deal with up front because it is a crucial verse. The NRSV translates this final verse of the fifth chapter, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Many scholars follow the translation in a manner like O. Wesley Allen,

Likewise, there are idealistic expectations in the discourse that seem beyond the reach of any normal, finite, sinful human being or human community summed up in the expression, “Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect. (Allen, 2013, p. 53)

The word translated as perfect is telios which is a word with the connotation of completeness, or reaching an end/goal, of being mature or grown up. As a person who grew up in the individualistic ethos that is instilled in people who grow up in the United States, perfection is a term which depends upon individual rigor in attending to the letter of the law but one of the things I’ve discovered in my time studying the Hebrew Scriptures is that the law is always directed towards the community. An individual may act righteously or wickedly, they may be innocent or blameless but the law itself is always directed towards the life of the community. When I studied Deuteronomy, for example, I framed my examination of the law in terms of the type of society they were attempting to create. If the Sermon on the Mount is about the type of community that the kingdom of heaven embodies, as I will argue, then perhaps it is a primer in how to live together as the people of God rather than a model for individual perfection.

Jesus doesn’t seem to focus his ministry on attaining moralistic perfection, but instead the kingdom of heaven seems to be much more related toward surprising compassion towards the people Jesus encounters. As E. P. Sanders can state:

Secondly, the overall tenor of Jesus’ teaching is compassion toward human frailty. He seems not to have gone around condemning people for their minor lapses. He worked not among the powerful, but among the lowly, and he did not want to be a stern taskmaster or a censorious judge, who would only add to their burdens…

Thirdly, Jesus did not live a stern and strict life. For most of us the word ‘perfectionism’ calls up images of severe Puritanism: lots of rules, plenty of punishment for error and not much room for fun. This sort of Puritanism, according to Jesus, was all right; an austere life had been fine for John the Baptist, but it was not his own style. (Sanders, 1993, pp. 202-203)

Finally, the way perfection is modeled in the United States does pull on our history of severe Puritanism, even as it has transformed in our secular society under the guise of a non-religious perfectionism.  So for the moment let us set aside our ideas of being perfect or achieving perfection in an individualistic sense and let us enter this world that Jesus is articulating for us in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew has brought us quickly to the mountain to hear these words from Jesus, so may we have ears to hear, eyes to see, minds whose imagination can dream this dream of the kingdom of heaven, and hearts to courageously strive together for this community of disciples.

 

 

Perfection and Blamelessness in the Bible

In looking at how to approach the Sermon on the Mount, I’ve wrestled with how to translate the word translated perfect in Matthew 5:48 and while my suspicion is that perfect is not a good translation for the Greek work telos, I wanted to look more broadly at how the scriptures dealt with the idea of being perfect, perfection or blameless.

Perfect, Perfection and Blamelessness in the Hebrew Scriptures

There are two primary words in Hebrew that end up translated perfect, perfection and blameless and they are related two each other. Hebrew words begin as a verbal form and so the verb root is :תָּם
(Tam) which in its Qal form means to complete, finish, fulfill, to be finished, come to an end and in its Hitp’ael form means finish, complete, perfect, cease doing a thing, complete or shut up.[1]This verb also has a noun form (Tim) and the more common for our current examination adjectival form Tamim. There are a few other Hebrew terms which get translated perfect or blameless (for example Daniel 6:22 translates a term that normally is translated purity (zaku) for blameless and Lamentations and Ezekiel use the word kelil for a poetic reflection of perfection in terms of beauty).

In the Hebrew Scriptures these translations rarely talk about moralistic perfection which is often implied to an English reader of the words perfect, perfection, and blameless and below I am listing my categories of what these translations are referring to:

Innocence/Righteousness

Righteousness/Justice is an important concept in Hebrew thought, but I think it is easy for us to assign a modern interpretation on Justice or the Law which doesn’t coincide with a Hebrew way of understanding the gift implied in these terms. Often when Tam or Tamim is translated blameless it is referring to the concept of a person being innocent or righteous. In both Hebrew and Greek justice and righteousness are rooted in the same term (tszadik in Hebrew, dikaisoune in Greek) and while there is a sense where righteousness is linked to keeping the commands and ordinances of the law, it more broadly encompasses living in a right relationship with God and one’s neighbors. Tamim or Tam can be translated in parallel with righteousness, for example in Genesis 6:9 Tamim is translated blameless in parallel with righteousness and refers to Noah being innocent unlike his generation: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (see also Genesis 17:1 in relation to God calling Abram to be innocent (blameless)). This is also the primary way the book of Job uses the Tam and Tamim family of words, for example: There is no one like him, a blameless and upright man (Job 2:3, see also Job 1:1, 8; 8:20; 9:20, 21,22; 12:4; 22:4). Being blameless is parallel to being upright or righteous but it is not used in the sense of legalistically keeping every possible interpretation of the law, instead it is often used more generally to speak of a person’s character being in accordance with God’s intent for life in the community of faith.

Sacrificial Acceptability or Completion in Dedication to God

Another usage of Tamim or Tam when translated perfect is related to a cultic usage where a sacrifice or item is acceptable for use in sacrifice or the worship of God. Leviticus 22:21 is an example of this usage for a sacrifice, “When anyone offers a sacrifice of well-being to the LORD, in fulfillment of a vow or as a freewill offering, from the herd or from the flock, to be acceptable it must be perfect; there shall be no blemish in it.” This also is used when the temple is dedicated in 1 Kings to talk about the completion of the space in preparation for worship, “Next he overlaid the whole house with gold, in order that the whole house might be perfect; even the whole altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary he overlaid with gold”(1 Kings 6:22). Tamim and Tamm are used to reflect completeness or wholeness, which is the sense of perfect reflected by the translation. A sacrifice must be without injury, illness or blemish or the sanctuary was completely overlaid with gold without missing any area.

Completeness/Righteousness in relation to God

This use of Tamim (always the adjective in this usage) occurs in songs and poetry when talking about God as being complete or whole in relation to God being upright. Deuteronomy 32:4 is the first usage of this type in the song of Moses, “This God—his way is perfect; the promise of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all who take refuge in him” (also used in this manner in David’s song of Thanksgiving in 2 Samuel 22: 31 and in Psalm 18:30)

Completeness in relation to knowledge or content

In the book of Job, the final human voice to speak prior to God’s answer is Elihu who attempts, like the other friends of Job, to convince Job that he must be unrighteous to merit the suffering he is undergoing. In his boasts he claims to have perfect knowledge (or to be in the presence of God who has perfect knowledge) in the sense of knowing everything correctly or completely. (Job 36:4, 37:16)  Psalm 19:7 can also refer to the law as being complete in a similar (but non-ironic) manner, “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple

Poetic Use in Relation to Beauty or Splendor

Perfect or perfection is often used in compliments to poetically state that a person, city or event was attractive, beautiful or wonderful. This is one of the most common usages of Tamim and Tam in Psalms, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, and Ezekiel (which also uses the Hebrew word kelil) and can be used for a woman, a king, the law or even a city like Jerusalem or Tyre. For example, Song of Solomon can refer to a woman, “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of night” (Song of Solomon 5:2, see also 6:9). The king of Tyre is described as a signet of perfection and perfect in beauty (Ezekiel 28:12), the law is perfect in terms of admiration(Psalm 119:96) as are Jerusalem (Psalm 50:2, Lamentations 2:15, Ezekiel 16:14) and Tyre (Ezekiel 27: 3-4, 11).

Translated Perfect or Blameless in the New Testament (other than Telos/Teleo)

There are a couple words that get translated perfect or blameless in the New Testament: amemptos is commonly used in Pauline literature and is translated blameless and echoes the sense of innocence/righteousness discussed above for Tam and Tamim in Hebrew.[2] Other terms that get translated as either perfect or blameless (other than telios which will be the focus of the next section) include: amomos (unblemished in terms of sacrifice, blameless in moral terms, Revelation 14: 5), anegkletos (blameless, irreproachable, 1 Timothy 3:10, Titus 1: 6, 7) akakos (innocent, guileless, Hebrews 7:26) holoklepia (wholeness, completeness, soundness-wholeness of health, Acts 3: 16); kataptisis (being made complete, complete, 2 Corinthians 13:9); pas (all, full, great) and plerow (make full, fill, fulfill, bring to completion, Revelation 3:2). Each of these translations capture one of the senses listed for tam and tamim above but since the focus of this is on the translation of the term telos in Matthew’s gospel, we will now turn our attention to this word.

Translating Telos/Teleo in Matthew and the New Testament.

Teleo (verb) and telos (noun) and their derivatives, especially the adjectival form, in Greek are the most common terms translated perfect by the NRSV. The book of Hebrews frequently uses this term in the sense of completeness or sacrificial acceptability. James and 1 John use the term in the sense of highest in terms of comparison (perfect love, perfect law, perfect gift, etc.).[3]Paul uses telos and teleo derivatives three times to indicate completeness which get translated perfect in the NRSV (Romans 12: 2; 2 Corinthians 7:1; 12:9)[4]

Teleios, the adjectival derivative of telos, occurs three times in the gospels, all in the Gospel of Matthew: Matthew 5:48 (twice) and Matthew 19:21 and the NRSV translates each time as perfect:

Matthew 5: 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect

Matthew 19: 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

The telos family of words are words of ending, completion and reaching a goal, they don’t carry the connotation of moralistic perfection that placing the word perfect in English does. Apparently, this translation goes back to the Latin Vulgate which translates teleios with the latin perfecti and perfectus and translations tend to value consistency with previous translations when possible. However, the lingering impact of perfect on the history of translation of this passage has caused people to hear the Sermon on the Mount as an unattainable pillar of perfection that is unable for human beings to attain. I would argue for a more literal translation in both Matthew 5:48 and 19:21 of complete instead of perfect for reasons I will argue in the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount and in the comments on Matthew 5: 48.

 

 

[1] Hebrew verbs have various forms (Qal, Nif’al, Pi’el, Pu’al, Hitpa’el, Hif’il and Hof’al) the Qal is the simple active form where the Hitpa’el is the reflexive form. The form of the verb can significantly change a meaning, but in the case of Tam they are very similar with minor shades of difference.

[2] Philippians 1:10; 2: 15; 3:6; Colossians 1: 22; 1 Thessalonians 2: 10; 3: 13; 5: 23

[3] Hebrews 2:10; 5:9; 7:19; 9:9, 11; 10:1; 11:40; 12:23; James 1:17, 25; 3:2; 1 John 4:8

[4] I 1 Corinthians 1:8 the NRSV translates telos in its normal meaning as end